Friday, April 24, 2009
Chances of being paid for past injustice look up
US President Barack Obama. He said the US could do to compensate African-Americans for past injustices was to provide better inner city schools.Photo/FILE
By JAMES KARIUKIPosted Friday, April 24 2009 at 19:09
A few days before South Africans elected their fourth post-apartheid president, a US court allowed a case against multinational corporations accused of victimising Blacks during apartheid to proceed.
In all likelihood, whoever made that ruling was altogether unaware that he may have been setting the stage for the making of racial history.
During his 2008 US presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked about the issue of reparations for Black Americans. He responded that the best that the US could do to compensate African-Americans for past injustices was to provide better inner city schools. By implication, reparations in form of monetary restitutions were out of the question.
Obama’s response was politically tailored for the American electorate; his stand on the question of payment of reparations for Global Africans remains unknown.
But it may not be long before the US President has to take a position on the matter as the victims of apartheid will not relax on their case. Should they win, it is difficult to visualise restitution in any form other than cash.
In 1804 Haiti made history by undertaking a full-scale slave revolt against the colonising French. That revolution became the first successful strike against subjugation of Black people.
Haiti hit the world headlines again in April, 2003, by demanding that France pay back $21 billion in restitution for money paid in 1825 to French “settlers” as a precondition for recognising the island’s independence. This demand was conceivably the first international claim for reparations for Black folk with a specific amount attached to it.
In April, 2004, South Africa celebrated its 10th anniversary of democracy after the end of apartheid. That revolution became the final successful strike against legal subjugation of Blacks worldwide. South Africa concluded the racial liberation launched by Haiti 200 years earlier.
Affinity quickly developed between the two nations. In January, 2004, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki attended Haiti’s bicentenary celebrations of its revolution, the only Head of State to do so. Shortly thereafter, in May, 2004, Mbeki’s regime granted asylum to Jean-Bartrand Aristide, the president who had demanded reparations from France the previous year.
Seasoned critics insist that Aristide’s forced exile was triggered by his demand for reparations. Under the guise of seeking political stability in Haiti, we are told, Western powers colluded to force a popularly elected leader out of his homeland.
Meanwhile, South Africa was already caught in a storm of animated debate: Should Black South Africans seek legal restitution from Western multinational companies that had benefited from their exploitation during apartheid?
Opinions varied vastly. One proposition, championed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was that victims of apartheid were indeed entitled to seek legal restitution and, if found liable, the implicated corporations were duty-bound to make amends. Tutu was on record as a key “friend” of the claimants in a case lodged in New York.
Mbeki’s government differed, urging that in the interest of national healing, South Africans should let bygones be bygones.
Additionally, there was concern over the sensitive matter of jurisdiction; Mbeki’s presidency was opposed to the notion of its citizens seeking legal restitution in foreign lands for domestic grievances. On these grounds, the Justice minister wrote to the relevant US Court urging dismissal of the apartheid case.
By resisting the quest for restitution, Mbeki’s government added to a widely held perception that his was not a government for the ordinary people.
For the moment, Mbeki’s regime found itself trapped in the awkward position of being on the same side of the fence as the generally discredited George W Bush, who was of the view that demanding reparations would contaminate relations between Pretoria and Washington.
More alarmingly, Mbeki’s government found itself locking horns with Archbishop Tutu, the respected ex-chairman of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Further, the government held a position that was antithetical to the cause of its most celebrated international guest, Haiti’s ex-president Aristide.
Historians would probably agree that Blacks have endured greater “collective injury” than all the other groups combined. Yet, no reparations have ever been paid to them. African-Americans have aspired for reparations for enslavement since the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to no avail. Each freed slave is still waiting for 40 acres and a mule.
In April 2009, previously, anti-restitution forces vested in the persons of George Bush and Thabo Mbeki are no longer on the scene, replaced by Barack Obama and Jacob Zuma. Should Zuma uphold his pledge to be “president of the people”, he will throw his weight behind the apartheid’s victims.
President Obama’s position is less clear but it would be disingenuous if he actively opposed reparations while he started his political career in support of divestments against apartheid South Africa.
Prof Kariuki is a writer and independent consultant in international and African diaspora affairs.